Want to know how to navigate the Victorian Web? Click here.
In transcribing this article, which states High Victorian objections to the gothic revival and calls for a new architecture, I have used the Hathi Trust’s online version. Because its garbled text version mixes lines from right and left columns, I have had to scan each column separately and use ABBYY OCR software to create the following text to which I have linked to documents in the Victorian Web and added photographs to accompany the author’s comments. Please notify the webmaster if you encounter typographical errors. — George P. Landow
Three views of Street’s Lawcourts. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
ew things can be more encouraging to those anxious to promote the arts of their country than the interest generally felt in Mr. Street's designs for the new Law Courts, and nothing more hopeful than the disapprobation with which they have been received. This has been so nearly universal that it would hardly be worth while to say more on the subject were it not that the real cause for dissatisfaction does not seem to be properly understood, and that unless it be clearly explained the practical application of the lesson may be thrown away.
If one thing is more clear than another, it is that the failure of the designs arises from no personal deficiency on the part of the architect. Mr. Street is a man of undoubted talent, equal in that respect to any of his professional brethren, either in this country or on the Continent. He loves his art, and has devoted his life and energies to its cultivation, more from predilection than from interest. He is an exquisite draftsman, and has, in fact, almost every qualification for a great architect; but he has thrown away all these advantages to follow a chimera, in choosing to devote his undoubted talents to reproduce the art and fashion of the thirteenth cen tury, and resolutely shutting his eyes to the fact that he and we are living in the nineteenth. To use Canning's famous apostrophe, he might as well attempt to restore the Heptarchy! No one who knows the architecture of the thirteenth century will wonder much at this delusion. It is very beautiful and very fascinating, but it is an anachronism, as little suited to of our feelings as the armour or the weapons of the same age. It would be as reasonable to build our war ships after the pattern of the galleys in which our Edwards and Henrys went to Crecy and to Agincourt, and to reintroduce the bows and arrows with which they fought and conquered, as to reproduce their architecture for our dwellings and civic buildings. Both were marvellously picturesque, and a poetry hangs around them from whose fascination it is difficult to escape; but both are equally unsuited to the wants and feelings of the present age.
The aspirations of which the architecture of the thirteenth century was the triumphant expression, were the result of a system which, during six or seven centuries, had been extending itself over Europe. From the time of Gregory the Great the Church of Rome had been gradually exerting its beneficent influence against the anarchy and crimes of that truly dark age. Everywhere throughout Europe her legions of ecclesiastics had been preaching peace and goodwill to blood-stained barons and their trodden-down serfs. As the only organized body having a distiuct and well-defined aim, the Church by degrees absorbed nearly all the power, and by far the greater portion of the wealth of Europe. She also possessed within her ranks all the men of learning and of science — as the word was then understood — and all the arts were her hand maidens; while it was fortunate for their development that the celibacy of the clergy deprived them of all selfish motives for hoarding, in order to transmit their wealth to their descendants. The Church was heir to all her children, and marvellous consequently was the development of the outward signs of her wealth and greatness.
It is little to he wondered at that such a system—thousands of educated hands and brains working through hundreds of years—should result in producing a perfection in ecclesiastical architecture which we still regard with awe and reverence; and it is easy to understand why men should despair of surpassing or even of competing with it. Such a combination of power with wealth and splendour is hardly likely to occur again; but as a set-off to this we have knowledge of many arts they knew nothing about, and have powers of scientific construction which throw their greatest efforts into the shade. All we want is the purpose and an aim; but unfortunately it is very unlikely that any set of men will now go through the long and sustained series of trials and studies which can alone lead to a satisfactory result. Meanwhile, as the clergy, from whatever motives, are perfectly content with the stvle of the thirteenth cen-tury, they will neither discourage its reproduction nor aid in any attempt to supersede it by something more appropriate to our times. Till, therefore, a new light dawns on them, church architecture will probably remain where it was five centuries ago.
With the laity it is, however, different. As early as the fourteenth century the trammels of the ecclesiastical system of architecture were found to have become inconvenient and unsuited for civil purposes; and in the fifteenth century the advancing intelligence and gradual emancipation of the laity led them to throw them off almost entirely. The baronial halls were lighted with tall and spacious windows, and roofed with carved and gilded wood-work of the most elegant designs, and were fitted up for feasting and gaiety, in strange contrast to the gloom of the refectory. Bower and bedroom with large square-headed windows superseded the long gloomy dormitory with its pointed loopholes; light and air were everywhere introduced, and space and brightness symbolized the fulness of manly enjoyment, in contradistinction to the gloom and solitude of the cloister, which was even then fast fading into a thing of the past.
In the sixteenth century the architecture of the country was on the point of being developed into a style as elegant and as refined as the Saracenic; and if the system of gradual development had been continued to the present day, we should have had a style in every way suited to our wants, and expressive of our feelings and our civilization. Unfortunately, towards the end of that century it met the rising tide of classical revival, both in literature and art. This collision—to use a railway phrase—was fatal to both. It resulted in the production first of a mongrel Elizabethan and then of a thoroughly debased Jacobean style, so intolerable that it was soon dismissed to make way for the Italian, or revived classical. Though this last was undoubtedly an improvement on what it superseded, it was far from being what was wanted. It contained many parts and members which were not only useless but inconvenient, and hampered the freedom of design; and, from not being native, it possessed a certain academic formality and strangeness which prevented its becoming a reality. In the early part of this century an attempt was made to obtain galvanic life, by introducing the Grecian style, with all its superior refinements and grace. It was thought that its exquisite elegance and purity would reconcile the public to its manifest incongruity and inconvenience. The effort culminated in the new buildings of the British Museum, which at last opened the eyes of all the world to the absurdity of the attempt, and drove them at once to the opposite extreme. Instead of the severe purity of the Greeks, war-paint and plumes became the order of the day, and that system too is now culminating in an anti-climax, as exhibited in the Albert Memorial and the new Law Courts.
British Museum , by Sir Robert Smirke. 1823-47. London.
The simple fact of two such buildings as Sir Robert Smirke’s British Museum and Mr. Street’s Law Courts being erected in the same city, so near to one another, and within so few years, for interchangeable purposes, is as manifest a confession as can be made that we have no Style of architecture, and do not know what to be about. [Footnote: That their purposes are interchangeable is evident from the consideration that thirty years ago Sir Charles Barry prepared a design for the Law Courts as purely and severely columnar Grecian as the Museum, which was adopted by Government; while, on the other hand, if a competition were now opened for a new museum, it is more than doubtful if a single classical design would be sent in. But of this hereafter.] Of the two absurdities the Gothic is perhaps the less absurd. Since—as the Saturday Review boasts that it has repeated weekly for years past, and promises to go on reiterating while it lasts—we are Englishmen, and not Romans or Italians, and still less Greeks, there is something to be said in favour of a style which was born and bred in this country. But even then it is only half the truth. We are Englishmen, but we do not live in the thirteenth century, and there is a greater difference between the rude baron or the domineering priest, and the abject middle classes of our Middle Ages, than there is between the educated and relined upper classes in England at the present day and the polished Roman of the first centuries after the Christian era, or the Italian gentleman of the sixteenth or seventeenth century: and the art of the latter is therefore more appropriate to our state of civilization than that which expressed the wants and feelings of our semi-barbarian ancestors five centuries back.
Fifty years ago, when the Gothic system was first introduced, men were content with the thinnest film of Gothic detail spread over the walls of a thoroughly modern building. True, this was an offence against good taste; but the wants and conveniences of modern times were still attended to. We have now become such purists, that if any detail of the exterior, any internal arrangement or article of furniture, betrays the secret of the age in which a nineteenth century building is erected, the architect is condemned as a bungler, and as ignorant of his profession. Alone of all the arts, architecture is now retrograde, and admits of no progress; and as the Gothic branch of it has now come to be practised in this country, instead of being merely an offence, it has become a standing insult to the age in which we live.
If the practice were to stop with this last example, there would probably be no great harm done. The new Law Courts might, like the frightful example of the itinerant preacher, serve as a warning, and their inconvenience and inappropriateness might prevent the repetition of such mediaeval productions ; but, unfortunately, we are threatened with even worse things, and the history of the new buildings about to be erected at South Kensington to accommodate the Natural History Department of the British Museum is too instructive an illustration of the system to be passed over in this place.
Left: Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum’s Main Entrance, Cromwell Road. Middle: Carved Mice. Right: Windows on the Cromwell Road façade
In 1864, when the Government first entertained the disastrous resolution to break up the British Museum and send one portion of it to South Kensington, a competition was instituted for designs for the requisite buildings. Thirty-three architects competed, and a committee of those whom the Government thought most fitted for the task was appointed to select the three best designs.
Left: The Main Entrance of the Natural History Museum. Middle: The Central Hall. Right: Typical Interior Carved Decoratrions.
The Committee had not a moment’s hesitation in awarding the first prize to a design which was undoubtedly the best of those sent in, and which it appeared to them was not only appropriate for its purpose, but would also be an ornament to the metropolis. Great, therefore, was their surprise and amusement when the seals were broken, and it was found that this design was by the redoubtable Captain Fowke. Their astonishment arose from the fact that up to that time Captain Fowke was only known from some terrible things he had done at South Kensington. His first designs were such as a schoolboy draws on a slate, and his 1862 Exhibition Building was only fit to be pulled down.
Two of Captain Francis Fowke’s Building. Left: Prince Consort's Library, Knollys Road, Aldershot. Right: Henry Cole Wing. Victorian and Albert Museum. Architects. Godfrey Sykes and others assisted on the second building. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
But he was a man of architectural instincts, and, had he been educated as an architect, and escaped the trammels of the Copying School, might have done wonders. As it was, he was brought up as a military engineer, and set to work to design and carry out civil buildings before he had mastered the most elementary principles of the art. He failed of course; but ten years’ experience—at the country’s expense—had enabled him to remedy the defects of his early education, and his natural aptitude for the art at last enabled him to realize this very beautiful design. It was neither Grecian nor Gothic, but thoroughly nineteenth century; and had he lived and been allowed to carry it out with such ameliorations as further study would have enabled him to introduce, his building would have marked an epoch in the history of architecture in this country.
Dis aliter visum. One fine morning the Government, worried and perplexed by the rival claims of the competing architects, issued an ukase which was intended to settle the whole question. To Mr. Scott, as the Goth of the Goths, it was given to design and carry out the Home and Colonial Offices in the Italian style.
Two views of the India Office, Whitehall. designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. 1861-68.
To Mr. Street was awarded the Law Courts, because his design was the worst—a perfectly competent tribunal having awarded him only three marks in the competition, while it had assigned Edward Barry forty-three. But as a sop to keep the latter quiet—which does not, however, seem to have proved a successful expedient— he was given the new National Gallery. Because Messrs. Banks and Barry had some claim on the Government in respect to a War Office competition, they were given the Burlington House buildings.
Burlington House, originally begun by Sir John Denham in 1664-65 and which James Gibbs Colen Campbell continued. After the government bought the house in 1854, both Gibbs's colonnade and Campbell's eighteenth-century gateway were replaced by the firm of Robert Robertson Banks and Charles Barry, Jnr. in 1868-73.
Lastly, because Mr. Waterhouse was supposed to have earned a claim by what he had done in the early stages of the Law Courts competition, to him they awarded the task of carrying out Captain Fowke’s design for the Natural History Museum.
It would be difficult to conceive a process more insulting to the judges, or more detrimental to the encouragement of architectural art, than this was, and has proved to be. Government, it is true, to save their responsibility, always insert clauses to protect themselves from legal damages in the event of their doing what they know to be a violation of the spirit of their agreement. Practically, however, no architect enters upon a competition except on the understanding that, if his design proves to bo the best, he will not only get the first prize, but be employed to carry out his design. The prizes, however large, never cover the cost of a competition; and when to the cost we add the waste of energy and time, and the mental anxiety involved in the process, no man in his senses would compete if he had not faith in his judges, and confidence that the only prize worth having would be awarded to him who best deserved it. There is an end of all faith in the justice and discrimination of Government when, in defiance of this understanding, it is found that an official with no special qualifications may any day tear up all the awards of the judges, and then proceed to distribute the prizes according to his own caprice, or according to the pressure brought to bear upon him. Such a system is degrading to the profession, and it is very creditable to it that the public are still so well served, and our public buildings not infinitely worse than they are.
If the Government had any serious intention that Captain Fowke’s design for a natural history museum should be earned out, they would have insisted on a pledge that this should be done with only such changes and ameliorations as the original architect himself might have introduced. Nothing of the kind was done; and what might have been foreseen as inevitable, soon came to pass. Mr. Waterhouse’s position as an architect did not allow of his carrying out any other person’s design, much less that of a soldier-officer. He consequently very soon produced an entirely new design of his own, in what he is pleased to call the Norman, or according to the more fashionable modern euphuism, the “Byzantine” style, though what its connection may have been with Byzantium I do not know. As Mr. Waterhouse very well knows, it is no more Norman than the British Museum is Greek. It is a modern building, with large openings filled with plate-glass. The roofs are fitted with skylights; swing doors, modern fireplaces, plate-glass cases, and every other nineteenth-century contrivance, is sought to he introduced; but he escapes from the difficulty of designing details appropriate to the present age, under the pretext that the rude clumsy ornament he is using is correct Norman.
If this building were as truly and essentially Norman as Mr. Street’s is thirteenth century, it would be so intolerable that it could not be erected. Some people think we may safely go back as far as the time of Edward III., but no human power would force British science to be content with the dark dungeons that graced or disgraced our island in the troublous times succeeding the Conquest.
Mr. Street’s design, again, fails from exactly the opposite quality. It is the accuracy of imitation pervading every detail that makes it so perfectly intolerable. According to this Joshua of architects, the sun of art stood still when Edward III. died in 1377, and has not moved forward since that time. Hence the lawyers of the nineteenth century must be content to lounge in vaulted halls, with narrow windows filled with painted glass, and so dark that they cannot see to read or write in them. They must wander through corridors whose gloom recalls the monkish seclusion of the Middle Ages. They must sit on high straight-backed chairs, and be satisfied with queer-shaped furniture, which it is enough to give one the rheumatism to look at; and no higher class of art must be allowed to refresh their eyes than the heraldic devices, or the crude, ungainly nightmare paintings of the Middle Ages. It is strange that educated men in the nineteenth century should desire this; but if they do, it is well they should have it in perfection. The more complete the reductio ad absurdum, the sooner the reaction will set in.
Left: Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament). designed by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin. 1840-60. Right: Big Ben.
When the reviving taste for barbarism imposed a task of this sort on the late Sir Charles Barry, he submitted, as an architect must; but with characteristic common sense he chose that form of Gothic which was least offensive to modern ideas. And he further gave it a dignity and grace which hardly belong to the style, by taking the licence of putting his design for the Parliament Houses into an Italian form. The Palace at Westminster is not perfect, but it has at least this merit, that its style is two centuries nearer our time than Mr. Street’s, and thus incorporates all the improvements that were introduced during those 200 years. It consequently comes so much further forward, that modern improvements and modern art are not the complete discoid which they would be in a building so essentially mediaeval as the Law Courts are intended to be made. In so far as it is nearer our time it is better, but the public will hardly be able to measure this advantage till they feel the inconvenience of the more archaic building.
But the important question remains, Where is all this to end? When we have got our Tudor Parliament Houses, our Edwardian Law Courts, our Norman Museum, what is to be done next? One step backward we can still see our way to—there is the Saxon. Instead of repeating the vague term “Englishmen,” representing a heterogeneous medley of nationalities, let the Saturday Review use the more definite term, and ask, Are we not “Saxons?” With sufficient iteration its claim must eventually be admitted, and ought to be; for besides its undoubted ethnological claim, it has two merits of its own. We know so little about it that it admits of considerable latitude of design, without offence to archaeologists, and its details are so rude and lean that they must be cheap. Let the Government, then, when they issue their proposals for a competition for the new War Office, for once make up their minds beforehand, and specify the Saxon style as that to be adopted. It will admit of some novelties, and be quite as appropriate to the wants of the nineteenth century as the Norman or Edwardian styles.
When, however, we have thus completed our hortus siccus of dried specimens of dead styles, the prospects of the next generation of architects will be dark indeed. There will only then remain the so-called Druidical style of the Ordnance Survey. At present no doubt it is inconvenient and somewhat draughty; but if plate-glass and modern retinements may be used with the Norman, why not with the Druidical? I do not feel by any means sure that a stuccoed Stonehenge, with a glass and iron roof, would not be as good, perhaps a better representation of the architecture of the nineteenth century than many buildings which have recently been erected.
But to return to the Law Courts for a few minutes, before concluding. The particular crotchet which, besides its anachronism, renders the principal facade so unsatisfactory, is Mr. Street’s determination to insist on his great vaulted hall. In his first design this hall was placed east and west, in the centre of the building. It was not seen from the outside, and was useless inside. It was therefore harmless, except that it increased the expense enormously, while it darkened the lights, and rendered the courts and passages around it noisome and inconvenient. In addition to these trifles, however, it may be added that it is not Gothic, for so far as I know no such vaulted hall was erected for any civil purpose in any country of Europe during the Middle Ages.
In the new designs the hall is placed north and south, and comes so near the front that the temptation was irresistible to justify its introduction by showing it, and making it a feature in the design. It could not, without destroying its supposed use, be brought quite to the front, like Westminster Hall, thus making it the central feature in the facade. It must consequently be seen in perspective at some distance behind, but in order to enable this to be done the facade must be cut in two; and more than this, all the nearer features must be kept small and subdued, so as not to dwarf the distant hall. All this is quite right and logical, if the hall is to be seen. But why the hall at all? If the Government had even now the courage to say to Mr. Street, “You shall not have your vaulted hall, but must introduce a glazed court, or such a hall as Mr. Waterhouse proposed in his design,” they would not only immensely improve the convenience of the Courts, but save the architect from a difficulty he does not see his way out of. He could then close up his front and introduce a central feature, with appropriate wings, which would give some dignity and proportion to the whole design, and so save it from the scattered littlenesses which every one remarks, though few are aware why they are inevitable with the present arrangements.
No re-arrangement of the parts, however, can possibly remedy the real and fundamental error which is inherent in the whole design. If the Strand were the bed of a pellucid mountain stream, and this building were designed to be placed on its banks in some remote sparsely inhabited Midland valley, for the accommodation of a congregation of barefooted friars, we might admire the picturesqueness of its details, and shut our eves to the anachronism in consideration of its appropriateness. It is difficult, however, to realize the frame of mind in which any one could sit down at the present day seriously to prepare such a design for a Palace of Justice in the largest and richest city of the world. If the Government, when the competition was proposed, had had the courage to proscribe both the Classic and the Gothic styles, there are many architects in this country who could have furnished both elegant and appropriate designs in styles perfectly suited to our wants and feelings. If, however, Gothic was admitted, one of two things seems inevitable. The building must either (like Sir Charles Barry’s Parliament House or his son Edward’s design for the Law Courts) be an Italian design in a Gothic disguise, or, if it is to be (as Mr. Street boasts that his is) a real facsimile of the monastic or domestic architecture of the Middle Ages, it must be such as is only suited to that remote stage of civilization, and both antagonistic to the taste and inappropriate to the purposes of the present generation.
It is not pleasant to write thus of the works of men who I am proud to call my friends, and for whom personally I have the greatest possible esteem; but my belief is that they are the slaves and the victims of a thoroughly vicious system, and unless some one will speak out, even at the sacrifice of personal feelings, there is no hope that it will be amended. My conviction is, that so long as men copy, and copy only, art cannot advance beyond the schoolboy stage, and no ability, however great, will enable any one to produce a building which will be satisfactory fifty years after its erection. There are not probably in Europe two architects of greater ability or greater knowledge of their profession than Messrs. Street and Waterhouse, and their failure to produce satisfactory designs for the two buildings criticized above, is to my mind sufficient proof of the truth of the proposition that it is impossible to render the art of a bygone age suitable or appropriate to the wants or feelings of the present.
On the other hand, if men will think, and think only, of how they can best carry out a design, with the best materials and with the forms best suited for the purposes it is intended for, and ornament it in the manner most elegant and appropriate to its constructive and utilitarian necessities, without ever thinking of, or at least copying, anything done before, my conviction is, that it will be as difficult to make a bad design as on the copying system it is to make a good one. I have arrived at this conclusion because I find that every nation in the world has been able to produce a style of architecture perfectly suitable to its own wants, and commanding the admiration of all strangers; and this though many were in a state of civilization infinitely below our own, and had neither the knowledge or the appliances which we possess. If we can revert to the thinking system, though we may blunder a little in starting at first, we may look forward with confidence to the future of architectural art in this country. We have hundreds of architects able and willing to do all that is required. The rapidity with which they learned to copy Gothic details, and the perfection of their imitations, are proofs that there is no lack of ability on their part. They could just as easily and as quickly produce designs in modern styles if they were asked for; but it is doubtful whether the public are prepared to demand this, or whether they are sufficiently educated in true art to appreciate them if obtained. On the other hand, if we are content with the copying system, we may fold our arms and despair. In no part of the world has it succeeded in any age, and it is very unlikely it should do so now.
Are the architects wise in the course they are pursuing? Is there no danger that the Government and the public may in future go to Chatham or to Great George Street for their architects? If they ever do, it will be a dark day for the arts of this country. Architecture is not an art to be learned in a day, or practised by amateurs. Long apprenticeship and severe study are requisite for success; and if architecture ever passes out of professional hands, we certainly may be more cheaply and more conveniently accommodated, but the art will probably be something one dreads to look forward to. The Institute of Architects may save us from this, but to do so it must write over its doors, “Archaeology is not Architecture,” and, I would add, “never can he made to take the place of true or manly art.”
Fergusson, James , F. R. S.. “The New Law Courts.” Macmillan’s Magazine. 80 (1871): 250-56. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. Web. 5 November 2020.
Last modified 5 November 2020